Flu (2013)

First published by Grolsch FilmWorks

It’s April 2014 – what we in the biz like to call the ‘near future’ – and a container-load of (mostly dead) illegals has just landed in Bandung, near Seoul, inadvertently importing an airborne mutation of the H5N1 virus that will quickly have half the local populace expectorating and haemorraging themselves to death, and the other half rioting against the newly imposed emergency rule. Soon all that stands between chaotic genocide and a possible cure is a sexy virologist, her infected daughter, and an Emergency Response Team worker with a noble commitment to his calling.

Kim Sung-su’s Flu may bear an obvious resemblance to Western disease/disaster flicks like Outbreak (1995) or Contagion (2011), but that is not to say that this Eastern strain has not acquired some of its own genetic characteristics, including imagery of police brutality and panicky protest that evokes both Korea’s relatively recent history as a military dictatorship, and the fragility of the democracy that has replaced it. There is also, as in Bong Joon-ho’s monster movie The Host (2006), a conjuring of South Korea’s uneasy relationship with her American allies, who here seem all too happy to mow down the local population – with the equally self-serving connivance of some of Korea’s political class – to preserve their own interests.

Most of Flu, however, is infected with pure cliché, and padded and bloated to suggest an epic scale that the film’s subpar CGI cannot by itself convey with quite enough conviction. In order to humanise this story of an invisible (although occasionally visualised, CSI-style) killer, there is a focus on a small ensemble of characters whose heroics – or villainy – provide the moral vector that a virus inherently lacks. Unfortunately this leads to some decidedly contrived plotting, where all the main players are linked through a nexus of dizzyingly implausible coincidences.

Not only has rescue worker Ji-gu (Jang Hyuk) run – separately – into both virologist In-hye (Su Ae) and her young daughter Mirre (Park Min-ha) shortly before the outbreak, but he also keeps crossing paths thereafter not only with both of them, but also with viciously selfish villain Guk Hwan (Ma Dong-suk), with consistently (and, in narrative terms, conveniently) bellicose people trafficker Byung-ki (Lee Hui-jun), as well as with patient zero Monssai and with his own rescue colleague Kyung-up (Yoo Hae-jin).

The last-mentioned character is there to provide comic relief – for, despite featuring mass death and even what can only be described as Holocaust imagery in Bundang’s sport stadium, somehow Flu still finds plenty of room for goofy buddy comedy, mawkish romance and routines involving excessive child cutesiness. It is such a misjudged mélange of incongruous tones that by the time things have got serious, they remain very difficult to take seriously. Still, anyone coughing in the audience is likely to provoke a nervous response from the theatre.

Anton Bitel